Human beings cannot live without plastics for one hour
Mr Patawari, plastics have been criticised worldwide for the marine pollution and littering they cause. There are now many initiatives to stop using plastics. How worried are you that one day you will run out of material?
Plastics are so much in use and in demand that we human beings cannot live without them for even one hour. We wake up in the morning and the first thing we do is to look for our mobile phones, which are made of plastic. We drive to the office in a car made of plastic and we start working in our offices with desktop computers and laptops that are also made of plastic. In fact, plastics impact the life of every person every day and everywhere. Without plastics, food waste would increase. Without plastics, fuel costs would increase due to the heavier vehicles. Without plastics, medical care would be very difficult if not impossible. In fact, we generate so much plastic that every hour, waste equal to 2,000 trucks is created. We generate about 300 million tonnes of plastics waste every year and sadly less than 20% of that amount is recycled. That’s why we are surrounded by plastic.
In many cases, plastics manufacturers are beginning to pay more attention to recyclability. Is this a general trend?
The plastic manufacturers will have no choice but to pay attention to recyclability. Otherwise they will have to pay the end-of-life costs. At the moment, it is not a general trend, but it will soon become one. The plastics industry will be forced to do so under pressure and through the persuasion of the public, the press and eventually the politicians. The problem is much bigger than we are being led to believe. Primary plastic production is increasing by more than three per cent per annum, but recycling is increasing by less than two per cent. At this rate there will be over 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste by the year 2050. Surely this is not the situation we want our next generation to inherit from us.
In which fields of application do you see the best chances of success for recycled plastics?
I see the increasing use of recycled plastics in packaging materials and products with short duration. However, the quality of recycled plastics (PCR) still needs to improve substantially. Although many brand owners have made commitments to use recycled plastics ranging from 20% or more in the next five years, there are not enough recycled materials available to fulfil these commitments. We will need over six million tonnes of good-quality PCR and currently the availability of this quantity looks difficult.
Should plastics that cannot be recycled simply be banned?
There should not be a blanket ban. If there is a legal ban, people will find ways to bypass it or circumvent it. Instead, there must be an END-OF-LIFE TAX on materials that cannot be recycled. Market forces will encourage a reduction in the use of such plastics. Funds from this tax can be used to find solutions for these materials.
A disposal solution for non-recyclable plastics may soon be in sight. Numerous chemical companies are involved in the chemical recycling of plastics. What chances of success do you see for this process?
Mechanical recycling alone will not solve the challenge of plastics recycling. It needs to be complemented with chemical recycling. However, most of the chemical recycling still consists of pilot projects. They still need to begin commercial level production. I learnt from the well-known plastics consultancy company IHS and from the Zero Waste Association that chemical recycling is still five to ten years away. However, there is a tremendous push to make a breakthrough. I hope and believe that we will have a solution sooner than in five years’ time.